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Young calligraphers are popularizing a Vietnamese version of the art, insisting that while they no longer use traditional Chinese characters, their work remains true to the philosophy of the craft.

Traditional calligraphers, known as ong do in Vietnam, have always been old teachers or scholars, quiet and unassuming, sporting the customary old-fashioned robes and grey goatees.

But as Tet nears and calligraphy stalls fill city streets to sell their decorative art for the Lunar New Year celebration, it’s hard not to notice that many of the calligraphers are close-shaven young students dressed in jeans and T-shirts.

And many of them are young women, a development still outrageous to many of their mothers and grandmothers who grew up in a more traditional society that frowned upon women taking up such work.

But just because these new artisans look different, doesn’t mean they take the craft any less seriously than their elderly colleagues in the traditional long tunics.

The new deal

Traditionally, calligraphy has been a hand-painted artistic rendering of Chinese characters representing different words. But now, the new breed of young calligraphers are writing calligraphy in the Romanized Vietnamese alphabet.

As the New Year approaches, the most popular words people bring home as decorations are still Phuc (happiness), Loc (prosperity) and Tho (longevity), or poems or proverbs symbolizing good health, good luck and prosperity for the new year. This much has remained true for centuries.

Though calligraphy in the Vietnamese alphabet isn’t technically “new,” it’s been practiced since at least the 1930s, it’s never been popular like it is today. And not only the young are appreciating it.

The 68-year-old calligrapher Le Lan, head of the Ho Chi Minh City Laborer Cultural House Calligraphy Club, said Vietnamese calligraphy was valuable because it is uniquely Vietnamese and doesn’t just imitate Chinese, Japanese or Korean arts.

And Lan, who holds calligraphy classes for foreigners, says Vietnamese calligraphy overcomes the limitations of other East Asian languages as westerners can practice it without having to memorize a new alphabet or phonetic symbols.

Young guns

So how do the new artists fit into the calligraphy game?

Most say they are earning their merits by staying true to the traditional definition of a noble calligrapher: one who is honest, respectful and does it for the art, not for the money.

“But many practitioners don’t appreciate calligraphy properly,” said Vu Dang Hoc, a 28-year-old artist.

He said there were even some collectors that didn’t give the art its due respect.

“We cannot ignore the fact that many people collect works just to boast about their knowledge, or some only buy the works they think are readable, and disregard the meaning lying beneath the words.”

Luu Thanh Hai, a 32-year-old artist, said that too many calligraphers were pursuing the work not as a passion, but only as a means to earn money during the holiday season.

“To be considered a calligrapher, one has not only good hand-writing, but also good character, knowledge and they must contribute to the development of the art,” said Hoc

“Only those whose hearts are really invested in calligraphy can make a great change for the art,” said Hai.

Young calligrapher Tran Van Sang, a food processing student during the day, is also a member of Hai’s Netviet calligraphy group. He says it took him four to five hours of practice everyday for four years before he got good.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T

Young artists also complain that the Vietnamese version of calligraphy is all too often disregarded and doesn’t get the respect of other art forms.

“Most people don’t recognize calligraphy as an art form. It is still just a movement in the country,” Hai said.

In order to promote local calligraphy, Hoc has already published books on calligraphy in both Vietnamese and English and is now organizing a calligraphy festival to be held at Vietnam’s largest pagoda, Bai Dinh, in northern Ninh Binh Province this February.

Reported by Phuong Anh â€" Phong Lan

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